Women and Guilt, Is It Emotional Blackmail?

Women and Guilt, Is It Emotional Blackmail?

Do women really experience more guilt than men?  It’s hard to say.  What I do know is I always seem to experience more guilt than the men I encounter.  Aside from the mommy guilt, work guilt, daughter guilt, sister guilt, friend guilt, and societal guilt; I tend to procrastinate, am very outspoken and have little willpower when it comes to sweets – all adding to my burden of guilt.

I often lay in bed nights, unable to sleep, rehashing my day. (It was so frustrating when I was married because my ex would be snoring contentedly after falling asleep within minutes!) Like most women, the thoughts going through my mind during this nightly ritual are often guilt-ridden – “I forgot to return that email, I shouldn’t have eaten those cookies, I hope she wasn’t offended by what I said during the meeting, I was too hard on my daughter about her homework, I should have gotten that project finished, I didn’t call my mother back, and on and on…”  I’m sure many of you can relate.

I wouldn’t consider my level of guilt unhealthy, but for some women I’ve known it’s almost as if they’re holding their sanity for ransom in a neurotic game of emotional blackmail.  So, I decided to find out why some women consistently beat themselves up and feel guilty.  Here’s what I learned…

There are 5 kinds of guilt

Most experts agree there are different kinds and degrees of guilt, but there’s a wide variance in how guilt is categorized. I think Arlene F. Harder‘s 5 kinds of guilt make the most sense. They are:

  1. Essential guilt – the most basic easiest to understand because it arises from “disobeying commonly recognized codes of behavior. In fact these are written into the basic laws of civilized society” – murder, rape, stealing, greed, etc.  Our society would not function well without the guilt felt by those whose behavior is inconsistent with these standards of behavior.  
  2. Deserved guilt – is guilt “related to the responsibility of others” such as cheating on your taxes, misrepresenting your company’s earnings, forgetting to pay your electric bill. Organizations and relationships operate well, in part, because we know that we’d experience at least some guilt if we overlooked our obligations to others.
  3. Self-generated guilt – as the title suggests is guilt you impose on yourself such as missing a self-imposed deadline, not following through on a commitment, or giving a poor presentation because you didn’t prepare.  “Whether or not you feel guilty – and whether or not the guilt is appropriate” –depends on why you didn’t meet the self-imposed obligation.
  4. Borrowed guilt – uneasiness, anxiety or shame associated with doing something in contrast to what you learned or were told by someone else – a parent, teacher, boss, etc.  Or, acting in a way that is different than someone else expects.  For example, you disagree with your boss on how to resolve a client problem.  You may feel guilty or uneasy if you don’t resolve the issue the way your boss wants you to.
  5. Hindsight guilt – what I call, “shoulda, woulda, coulda.”  This can be the heaviest guilt because it often comes from the belief that we should have or could have known or done something different, when many times we couldn’t possibly have known nor done anything else.   

Women may in fact feel more guilt than men

Evidence shows that women do experience more guilt particularly when it comes to home and work.  The Journal of Health and Social Behavior cites a study by University of Toronto sociology professor Scott Schieman and doctoral candidate Paul Glavin, which found that women felt 30% – 40% more guilty than men when having to deal with work issues at home.  “Specifically, the authors observe that frequent work contact is associated with more feelings of guilt and distress among women.”

According to a CNN article by Germain Greer, “Women feel more guilt than men, not because of some weird chromosomal issue but because they have a history of being blamed for other people’s behavior. You get hit, you must have annoyed someone; you get raped, you must have excited someone; your kid is a junkie, you must have brought him up wrong.”

Whether it’s due to genes, socialization or something else, I do believe women suffer more self-generated, borrowed and hindsight guilt than men.

Why are women so guilt-prone?

Guilt is often associated with feelings of shame or unworthiness, especially in women.  A 2010 University of North Carolina report on maternal guilt concluded, “women internalize their perceived inadequacies…as personal failures, which often occur in tandem with high levels of psychological distress and low perceived control.”

From personal experience and from what I’ve observed in hundreds of women, we often expect too much of ourselves and others, we self-impose limits, we’re overly concerned with what others think or do, we frequently second-guess ourselves, and readily take on the responsibilities, and resulting guilt, of others.

To make matters worse advertising and the media prey on women’s guilt – we’re never thin enough, rich enough, pretty enough, sexy enough, or smart enough!

I wish I could say I found the magic solution to diminish guilt, but I haven’t.  I can say that I’ve reduced my level of guilt by focusing on the good and by practicing gratitude.

How often do you find yourself dealing with guilt? Did you say something hurtful? Let someone down? Leave a job unfinished? Cheat on your diet? Have you found a way to stop the emotional blackmail caused by guilt?  Your story may help someone else.  Leave a comment or share – Twitter, Facebook, Youtube.

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Passionate advocate for the advancement and empowerment of women. Prior HR exec and co-founder of Ask Ajna - helping women find their voice in the workplace.

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